Because we live in a culture that loves to communicate in sound-bites, we tend to think we know the whole meaning of a word just because we’ve heard of it, or because we have images and concepts associated with it.
When I set about to write this post on ahimsa, my first reaction was “I know this!” After all, I had studied it, I had talked about in my yoga classes, and I practiced it – or so I thought, until I started to read quotes from great beings such as Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. – the celebrity A-list of ahimsa torch-bearers.
Ahimsa, which is most commonly translated as “non-violence”, tops the list of yamas, or ethical guidelines that form the foundation of Patanjali’s eight-limbed system of Yoga described in his revered classic, Yoga Sutras.
Written approximately two centuries after the life of Jesus, Yoga Sutras is both a practical map of the human mind as well as a step-by-step manual on how to achieve ultimate freedom.
If you ever wished there was a manual on how to operate your mind, this is it!
When it comes to your mind, you don’t want any old Joe Schmoe writing a guide. In Patanjali we find a true master with razor-sharp intellect and deep, abiding wisdom.
While reading the Sutras, I am always struck by the tone of absolute certainty by someone who has first-hand experience of what he is talking about. And believe me, he gets into some deep territory.
So let’s allow him to hold our hand and guide us through the first limb of Yoga.
The Yamas according to Patanjali are:
Ahimsa – non-violence
Satya – speaking the truth or non-lying
Asteya – non-stealing
Brahmacharya – chastity
Aparigraha – non-hoarding
The word yama comes from the Sankrit root yam, which means “to sustain, to hold up, to be founded on”, as well as “to restrain, to control, to put in order”.
In effect, Yamas are the basic rules of conduct, which are the prerequisites for attaining inner freedom. They are the very foundation of Yoga with a capital “Y”, a path that encompasses the entire fabric of our lives.
At first glance, it may appear to be just plain common sense. Or, it may seem a bit outdated – especially brahmacharya, which is unquestionably the most controversial of the bunch. Whatever your initial impression may be, there’s more here than meets the eye.
Let’s go a bit deeper into ahimsa with this quote by Mahatma Gandhi, who made this principle so famous by freeing an entire nation by its power:
True ahimsa should mean a complete freedom from ill- will and anger and hate and an overflowing love for all.
Ahimsa is the attribute of the soul and therefore to be practiced by everybody in all the affairs of life.”
For me, the last sentence was a revelation. “Ahimsa is the attribute of the soul…”. It elevates the conversation to another sphere altogether.
It informs us that ahimsa is not simply the absence of ill-intent, but an integral aspect of what we are.
But this naturally raises another question, tinged with doubt: If our true nature is non-violent, why is there so much violence in the world?
The answer is found in the Yoga Sutras itself. Patanjali states:
“Negative thoughts give rise to violence…they are caused by greed, anger or delusion…Through introspection comes the end of pain and ignorance.”
– Yoga Sutras II.34
The implied statement here is that we are not our thoughts.
This is a radical statement for most of us, who are completely identified with our thoughts.
Patanjali’s prescription for overcoming negative thoughts is two-fold:
1) Cultivate thoughts of opposite quality (i.e., positive thoughts).
While step one may well be one of the most ancient self-improvement advice on the planet, step two is the very heart of Patanjali’s Yoga.
He defined Yoga as the “cessation of identification with thought-waves”.
Through this deceptively simple definition, he was actually instigating a complete paradigm-shift, a profound overhauling of our identity-forming mechanism.
So, the next time you catch yourself caught up in negativities, find something, anything, that lifts you up. Divert the energy.
Then remind yourself: A thought is just a thought. You are not your thoughts.
You have the capacity to detach yourself from your thoughts and become their witness. And you can choose which thoughts to empower.
To practice ahimsa is to be constantly aware of our thoughts and intentions, with the understanding that what we think or say about others can be as powerful as any physical attempt to harm.
It has been said that if one masters of ahimsa, there is no need to learn any other yogic practices, because, as Gandhi said, “Ahimsa is a comprehensive principle.”
It is the beginning and the end.